Katoomba Area Climate Action Now is part of the national grassroots Big Solar campaign. Together with similar groups across Australia we will be polling local residents over the next two months to gauge the level of support for big solar. Poll results will be presented to local MP Louise Markus. Get in touch here if you want to help with the campaign locally or watch out for us at your local shops or markets.
Q: Can solar provide ‘baseload’ power?
A: YES it can! Concentrated solar thermal plants have already been built in Spain, Italy and the United States with sufficient heat storage (using molten salt) to provide the equivalent of overnight “baseload” power. Storage technologies are still undergoing further research and development and will rapidly improve as solar power generation expands globally.
In any case, the concepts of baseload & peaking power are no longer relevant for a 21st century power grid – we need despatchable power from a flexible, smart grid that utilises clean energy sources with declining cost curves (rather than continuing our dependence on fossil fuels that will only go up in price).
Q: Can solar power provide all our energy needs?
A: In theory, there is sufficient solar energy falling on the Earth’s surface to supply global energy demand many thousands of times over and Australia has the highest average solar radiation per square metre of any continent in the world.
In practice, however, Australia’s electricity needs can best be met by a combination of improved energy efficiency, better demand management and deployment of a range of renewable energy technologies including solar, wind, biomass and hydro power. At least two independent studies have demonstrated via modelling that Australia’s National Electricity Market could reliably be powered entirely from renewable energy, given the right policy settings and necessary grid improvements.
During a recent cold snap in Europe, Germany (with 20% of its electricity already coming from renewable sources) propped up nuclear-powered France, whose old outdated and costly reactors were unable to meet the increased power demand and where peak prices sky-rocketed to record levels.
Q: Can solar power plants be built at the necessary scale and speed to meet our energy needs?
A: In a recent Quarterly Essay, Andrew Charlton suggested that to meet just one third of Australia’s electricity needs from solar photovoltaic (PV – the kind you get on household rooftops) would require commissioning of a solar PV plant the size of the proposed Moree Solar Farm (150MW) every week from 2015-2020. Germany has demonstrated this is entirely possible!
More than 7,500MW of solar PV was installed in Germany in 2011 (over half of that in just 3 months) – equivalent to 50 Moree Solar plants – in addition to the 7,400 MW installed in 2010. Germany’s total installed solar PV capacity is 30,000MW, supplying up to 4% of its total electricity (similar capacity installed in Aust would allow us to retire four large coal-fired power stations, equivalent to 15% of our total electricity generation).
India plans to install 20,000MW of solar by 2020 and China recently increased its solar target to 15,000 MW by 2015 (from a baseline of only 1,000MW installed at the end of 2010). In Australia, solar PV installed capacity was 1,031MW as at Aug 2011, more than half of which (538MW) was installed in the first eight months of 2011. With only 6% of Australian households having installed rooftop solar PV, there is considerable scope for further expansion.
In Spain, the 20MW Gemasolar concentrated solar power plant is now generating power for 25,000 households, while tenders have recently been called for construction of a 50MW solar power plant to provide electricity for a further 70,000 households, creating 4,000 local jobs.
Breaking: there is an excellent list of solar projects under construction around the world compiled by Giles Parkinson over at Renew Economy today – have a look.
The urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions means that electricity generation from fossil fuels must rapidly be replaced with zero carbon energy sources. Solar power has among the fastest implementation times of any current energy technologies (2 – 5 yrs) – a critical factor if emissions are to start declining before the end of this decade.
Q: Is solar power too expensive?
A: Experience in Australia and overseas demonstrates the cost of solar power falls dramatically as the industry expands, especially if the right policy mechanisms are in place (including a flexible feed-in tariff for commercial scale power plants, an ambitious renewable energy target and financing mechanisms such as loan guarantees). Solar PV electricity costs in Australia (and elsewhere) are projected to reach retail grid parity within the next 2 to 3 years. Grid parity for concentrating solar thermal is estimated to occur once 8,700MW of capacity is installed globally (slightly less than Victoria’s current stationary energy capacity). In recent months, the U.S., Chinese & Indian governments have all predicted the cost of utility-scale solar will fall below that of coal or gas-fired generation by the end of the decade.
Electricity from fossil fuels has been relatively “cheap” because it doesn’t include the associated environmental and health costs and it is heavily subsidised by governments (e.g. taxpayers will be subsidising Cobbora coal mine near Mudgee in order to provide unsustainably “cheap” electricity despite rapidly escalating coal prices). Fossil fuel electricity prices will only increase further as global demand for coal and gas escalates and Australians are exposed to export price parity for coal and gas.
The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) recently forecast that Australian electricity prices will rise a further 37% in nominal terms (or 22% in real terms) over the three years to June 2014, largely due to increased transmission, distribution and wholesale electricity costs (the carbon price and Renewable Energy Target contribute only a small percentage to this increased price). NSW electricity prices are forecast to increase 42% in nominal terms, partly due to increasing reliance on gas, which is expected to substantially increase in price.
In contrast, German households are anticipated to be paying only 20% more on their bills by 2020, while expanding the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources to at least 30%, reducing their reliance on imported fossil fuels and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.
Q: Do concentrated solar power plants take up too much space, use too much water and have too much ‘embodied energy’ (i.e. energy used in construction & operation)?
A: Solar thermal plants can take up less space than current electricity generation infrastructure and its associated fossil fuel mining. Solar plants can be built on degraded grazing land or other non-productive land, in modules of varying sizes (e.g. BZE proposes 75MW – 220MW). BZE’s proposed 220 concentrating solar thermal sites would cover a circle 4.2 km in diameter over an area equivalent to 13.9 sq.km. A 500MW solar PV farm covering 12 sqkm is proposed to be built in Morocco as part of the Desertec project. In comparison, Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria covers approx. 35.54 sq.km and the 1,100MW Collie coal-fired power station in WA covers 47 sq.km (equivalent to 4.3ha per MW, compared to 6.5ha per MW for Solar 220).
Given the relatively recent expansion of large-scale solar power there has been limited research on energy payback periods, but analysis of a 17MW solar power tower and a 50MW solar parabolic trough power plant in Spain found energy payback periods of approximately one year (i.e. they generate sufficient energy over one year to compensate for the energy used in their construction, lifetime operation and dismantling at end of life).
Any means of electricity generation will be associated with some environmental impact – it’s a question of which technologies will have the least overall impact on the environment, the climate, human health and global security concerns, for decades to come. Full life cycle analysis of solar thermal power reveals substantial environmental and greenhouse gas benefits compared to the equivalent amount of fossil fuel electricity generation.
Our current reliance on fossil fuel electricity requires mining of coal and gas over vast areas of rural land – much of it suitable for agricultural production – in addition to large industrial plants and associated infrastructure to transport and process the coal and gas. Potentially damaging coal seam gas already supplies up to a third of eastern Australia’s demand for gas, yet there are no detailed Australian studies to determine life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from expanding our use of gas-fired electricity.
All electricity generation requires some water use, e.g. a typical 500MW coal-fired power station uses 8.3 billion litres of water each year. There is scope for reduced water use by solar thermal plants, with the availability and continuing improvement of air-cooling technology. Air-cooled solar thermal power towers only use 341L per MWh electricity produced, compared with 2,100L per MWh for Latrobe Valley’s brown coal generators (according to BZE report). Dry cleaning technologies are still being improved (they currently reduce efficiency of power production), although water use for cleaning of mirrors or solar panels represents only a small percentage of overall water use. In contrast, the electricity and gas sector consumed a total of 328 gigalitres in 2008-09, with future increased water entitlements proposed to be purchased on the open market in competition with agricultural uses.
Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions concludes that with the right policies in place, Australia can develop a renewable energy industry which provides “abundant, clean, cheap energy for all, at a much lower cost than fossil fuels in the near future”.
 Lechon, Y., de la Rua, C. & Saez, R. (2008) Life Cycle Environmental Impact of Electricity Production by Solarthermal Power Plants in Spain. Journal of Solar Engineering, Vol. 130 (May 2008).
 Draft Energy White Paper (Dec 2011).